By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
By the standards of western democracy, the election in the North must be one of the most bizarre ever to have taken place.
The people will be asked to vote for a set of democratic institutions that might never exist.
Over the next three weeks, the North’s political parties will be seeking their votes, but none of them has any idea whether they will have any opportunity to exercise the power those votes bring with them.
The North, with its artificial majorities created out of the gerrymander that was partition, has traditionally earned asterisks in the book of great democracies.
Looking at what is coming next, its bizarre traditions are seemingly alive and well.
Whether the Democratic Unionists will join a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin - or not - is the central question, and nobody knows the answer to that - including, I suspect, the DUP itself. For months, Ian Paisley has been blowing hot and cold but, for all his amateur dramatic skills, one wonders if even he knows.
Nor is the result next month guaranteed to provide him with any particular direction.
If the DUP were to continue to wipe out the Ulster Unionist Party, there is every chance that it might just strengthen his resolve to face down Westminster and Dublin. Equally, if Reg Empey’s UUP were to start clawing back electoral support, Paisley’s backwoods men would be screaming: ‘‘We told you so!”
To Paisley’s right, the extraordinary figure of Robert McCartney, the North Down MLA and UKUP leader, has emerged screaming of a sell-out.
Given his undoubted intellectual abilities and political nous, it is extraordinary that history has handed McCartney the role of the last post-war unionist soldier wandering out of the jungle waving his sword wildly.
It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of McCartney chasing an embarrassed Paisley around the new shopping malls of Lisburn last week. Plus ca change.
It is also evident that unionist politicians have failed to see where the North is going.
To the south, there is an increasingly prosperous Celtic Tiger economy whose closeness to, for example, Newry has already created something of an economic and property miracle there.
One look at the figures for Protestant involvement in education should set unionist alarm bells ringing, even in terms of five to ten years hence. Some 60 per cent of Queen’s University undergraduates and 55 per cent of University of Ulster undergraduates are Catholic.
Once again this academic year, 35 per cent of the North’s Protestant third-level students went to universities in Britain and statistical evidence suggests that a huge percentage of them never return to live and work in the North.
The figures for working-class Protestant involvement in third level education are even more alarming, with evidence mounting that they are now lower than they have ever been.
With the Catholic proportion of the population increasing, Belfast itself may soon have a Catholic majority.
Levels of unemployment and social deprivation in unionist working class areas are higher than any time since the Second World War.
In any normal society, such sectarian statistics would be meaningless, but they continue to constitute the North’s political looking-glass.
The era of unionist majorities is ending and - with the educational, economic and cultural indices for the newly emergent Catholic population rising all the time - unionism appears trapped in the headlights.
If ever there were a time to do a deal and attempt to create a new society, now would seem to be the ideal time to do so. However, there does not seem to be a sense of this crisis among unionist politicians.
There is nobody looking ten or 20 years down the road, as political unionism seems to stagger only from today’s crisis to tomorrow’s.
And, of course, the irony of it all is that these crises are largely manufactured within the DUP’s own political mindset.
As excuse after excuse for not accepting power-sharing is trotted out, is it any wonder that the North’s electorate can only wearily shake its collective head?
If the UUP were to claw back votes from the DUP next month, it might represent the beginning of an outbreak of collective common sense by unionist voters.
Equally, it might just send the DUP roaring back to its fundamentalist roots.
They are all up some sort of historical cul-de-sac, and seemingly have only their own phantoms to keep them company.
Nor should there be any surprise if, on the other side, the SDLP started clawing back votes from Sinn Féin. By a substantial majority, Catholic voters want devolution and, for many, the SDLP’s chances of delivering it are better than Sinn Féin’s.
On the one hand, Sinn Féin will gain some votes from finally accepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland but, in its heartland, it may lose more traditional votes than it imagines.
Gerry Adams and his party may have reached the point where Eamon de Valera was when he left Sinn Féin to found Fianna Fail. Who says that history is not an entanglement of circles?
It must be pointed out, however, that the achievement of Adams and Martin McGuinness in bringing the paramilitary tradition this far, and without major splits, has been quite remarkable.
Having said all that, how extraordinary it will be if, come March, the D’Hondt method, which was designed to maximise consent across divided political agendas, should result in the overwhelming majority of the North’s pro-power-sharing MLAs being denied it by a minority opposed to it.
If the DUP and some others, who may represent a minority in the Assembly, succeed in flouting the majority, why was the whole political superstructure erected?
Would it not be appropriate for the parliament in London to legislate that a simple Assembly majority in favour of power-sharing would trigger the process? Then those who refused to abide by that democratic decision would not be allowed to serve in any power-sharing administration.
It seems simple and democratic and, were it to be signalled in advance of the election, surely it would sort out what the North’s voters cannot see now: the backwoods from the trees.